There was a moment in the middle of President Obama’s address to the Illinois state legislature on Wednesday when a look of fear briefly came over his face.
Speaking to lawmakers with whom he used to serve, the president had been waxing nostalgic about his time as a state senator. Legislating in Springfield, as Obama described it, was nothing like the polarized Washington swamp. Sure, there was plenty of disagreement in Illinois, and the two parties debated the issues vigorously. But the political fights were civil. Republicans and Democrats played poker with each other, enjoyed rounds of golf together. They socialized. They didn’t call each other “idiots” or “fascists,” he said, “because then we would have to explain why we were playing poker with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America.”
In the White House, Obama’s inability to change politics has become his greatest failure and, as he has conceded repeatedly, “one of my biggest regrets.” He had not, he told some of his former colleagues in Springfield, been able to close “the yawning gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics.”
But everything was different in Illinois—or at least that’s how the president had remembered it when he left over a decade ago. Because as Obama was claiming credit for what he had accomplished in spite of all the partisan rancor, he saw that only the Democrats in the Illinois general assembly chamber were standing to applaud. The legislature was cleaving along party lines before his eyes, just like Congress does every year when he speaks in the Capitol.